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America's 'other' auto industry

In the South, host to foreign-owned plants, there is little sympathy held for Detroit.

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"The auto industry has for the most part transformed the South's economy, and it's because you're empowering [workers]," says Mike Randle, editor of Southern Business and Development magazine in Mountain Brook, Ala. "If you go to any of these foreign auto plants in the South, it looks like a rural high school parking lot – just a bunch of kids. Where are these young men or women going to get a job with a year of community college [experience]? Wal-Mart? Now they're starting at $17 an hour, and we're talking about thousands and thousands of jobs."

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But there are troubling implications, too. Like some of the old textile-mill magnates, a Honda plant in Alabama has resisted unionization efforts, telling workers that if they joined a union the plant's operations would radically change - a comment some workers interpreted (wrongly, says a Honda spokesman) as a veiled threat to close up shop. Last year, Toyota in Georgetown, Ky., fired two workers for releasing an internal document that discussed lowering wages. The demise of one or more of the big US automakers stands to benefit the foreign companies, as would the continued weakening of the UAW, whose existence indirectly boosts nonunion wages. [Editor's note: The original text miscast Honda's actual statements to workers.]

Labor historians note that President Franklin Roosevelt helped to raise wages across the board to get the US out of the Great Depression. Today, they say, many conservative Democrats and Republicans from the South, like Representative Westmoreland, are lobbying for the opposite to rescue Detroit.

"If and when the UAW is destroyed, what will happen to the transplants, like the Toyota plant in Kentucky and this new Kia plant, is that these companies will start offering Wal-Mart wages," says Lichtenstein.

Even here in West Point, where a new interstate exchange the state built for Kia opens Dec. 10, not all is well. Retired textile worker Jim McKee frets that "some of the cultural changes like the [Korean] restaurants are shocking and worrying to a lot of people."

What's more, Detroit may be a competitor, but most people in West Point drive Buicks, Chevys, and Fords. "I'm a Buick man, but, who knows, I might be buying a Kia soon," says Harris Nader, who owns an "old-time" music shop in West Point.

And not everyone blames the unions. The problem is "that the executives with these companies made mistakes down through the years in not producing fuel-efficient cars, not what the union was being paid," says Don Gilliam, a West Point city councilor. "Now it's essential that you give them help, not because of their mistakes, but for the sake of the general economy."

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